Big-name European clubs dot the U.S. summer landscape
With the CONCACAF Gold Cup under way, SuperLiga semifinals set for next week and barnstorming European and Mexican clubs about to arrive on these shores for cash-grabbing friendlies, what Major League Soccer's marketing folks have creatively dubbed the "Summer of Soccer" is now officially in full swing.
But both the domestic circuit and the other promoters are hoping to sustain and capitalize on the buzz produced by the U.S. national team's stirring run to the Confederations Cup final that, for a few days anyway, boosted soccer to the forefront of the mainstream sports media and left fans hungry for more top-end soccer.
|Summer of soccer schedule|
RSL vs. Club America
Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
9 p.m. ET July 18
Chelsea vs. Seattle
Qwest Field, Seattle
3 p.m. ET, ESPN2
AC Milan vs. L.A. Galaxy
Chelsea vs. Club America
And after the Americans showed their ability to stand toe-to-toe with the international game's elite versus Brazil and Spain, MLS teams will have plenty of chances to do likewise at the club level in the coming weeks.
"Even though there are obvious risks when you play against the likes of Real Madrid or Barcelona, it still represents an opportunity to test our players' mettle and let them to compete at a really high level," MLS commissioner Don Garber said of playing against world-class teams featuring the best players on the planet. "It's an opportunity to show how far MLS has come and how much better we are than most people give us credit for."
The marquee tilt of the summer is arguably Madrid's rematch with D.C. United on Aug. 9 at 90,000-seat FedEx Field just outside the capital, at which the presence of superstar world-record signings Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo could well end up selling the joint out. United held Real Madrid to a 1-1 draw in a friendly in 2006.
Before that, on July 19, David Beckham returns to Los Angeles in a must-see match against the Rossoneri squad he'd rather be playing for. That one comes one night after the Seattle Sounders host EPL heavyweight Chelsea. Then, in early August, both Seattle and the L.A. Galaxy will get a crack at reigning European champion Barca.
It's not just the fans who get excited for these us-versus-the-world affairs.
"You definitely get up for them," said the Kansas City Wizards' Jimmy Conrad of rare opportunities to face off against Europe's best. "Against Real Madrid in 2005, I learned more about the sport in 90 minutes playing against those guys than in [a] full season of MLS."
For the so-called Euro-snobs who would rather watch a pair of European clubs meet instead, they will get their fill as well. Baltimore's 70,000-seat M&T Bank Stadium is already nearly sold out for Chelsea-AC Milan on July 24, and another huge crowd is expected for AC Milan-Inter in Foxborough, Mass., two days later.
And of course, matches involving Mexican giants America and Chivas de Guadalajara will be among the best attended of the lot.
With so many games packed into a short seven-week span, conflicts are inevitable. On July 26, for instance, futbol fans in the Northeast will have to choose between that Milan derby and a potential U.S.- Mexico Gold Cup final at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., the same afternoon.
While it's good that non-MLS markets like Atlanta, San Diego and St. Louis are getting top-flight games -- and CONCACAF deserves credit for expanding the Gold Cup footprint from six venues in 2007 to an all-time high of 13 in 2009 -- there is the possibility of oversaturation in other places.
Take Seattle, where the Yanks' Gold Cup opener against Grenada drew 15,000. That is a decent turnout considering the opponent and second-string U.S. roster, but also a bit disappointing in a city whose MLS team is averaging double that.
But for the purists, there are plenty of meaningful matches on tap too. The SuperLiga experiment has lost some of its luster in its third year now that only second-tier clubs from Mexico and MLS take part, but the knockout stages of the Gold Cup and the start of the CONCACAF Champions League next month should whet fans' competitive appetites.
"Those are real competitions that we should win," Garber said.
"We need to get to the point where our teams are able to beat Mexican clubs in the Champions League and get to the Club World Cup. Then we need to play against Manchester United or Boca Juniors and try to win those games, even though that might be a tall order. But it was a tall order for the national team to beat Spain.
"The only way we're going to get better is to play against really strong competition."
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.